Monthly Archives: March 2019

Big Camera/Little Camera: Laurie Simmons at the MCA

Laurie Simmons’ retrospective, Big Camera/Little Camera, presents the artist’s work dealing with topics of consumerism, gender and gender roles, sexuality, and identity, from 1973 to the present. The exhibition moves from intimate silver gelatin photographs to large format saturated color prints, also exhibiting some of the props used to create the photographs. The organization of the exhibition is fairly straight forward and guides the uncertain viewer on. As you approach the exhibition there is a video with Simmons speaking about her work, wall text, and a clearly marked entrance and exit. As you enter the galleries, you move through Simmons series in chronological order, rather than thematically, giving the viewer a clear narrative of the progression of the artist, her interests, and the work. Accompanying the wall labels that have succinct descriptions of the series and individual works, there is larger wall text identifying each series.  The different series are clustered in groups on the wall and each series is visually cohesive leaving me wondering if the large wall text designating each group of works is necessary or if the curator should give the public more credit. Simmons also seems to grapple with the how much to tell the viewer, creating obvious one liners that are far from nuanced mixed in with deeper and more complex works. 

Closing the show, the last image next to the doorway is a large portrait of a dog, Penny (Harlequin), from the series Some New. While I am a fan of furry friends, the photograph seems disjunctive from the rest of the work in the show. The final room with works from Some New are made up of images of portraits where clothing or jewelry have been realistically painted on the bodies of different individuals and How We See, uncanny images of eyes painted onto closed eyelids. Some of the subjects include immediate family members and it is easy to assume that the dog is the artist’s, but I still find its presence perplexing and out of place with the rest of the series and exhibition.

While there are problematic moments in the show, such as works in the Kigurumi series, the exhibition is a successful representation of Simmons’ work and leaves a lasting impression. The different series contain humor, horror, and wonder, each complimenting the next. Including some of the miniature furniture props from the photographs and the model used for The Boxes (Ardis Vinklers), gives the viewer a sense of awe and a greater appreciation for the incredible transformation of spaces and objects in Simmons’ work. While each series uses different subjects, they are all tied together by a sense of the uncanny. Each photograph in the exhibition is slightly jarring, asking the viewer to look deeper at the work and contemplate the image. Having a retrospective of a female artist with feminist works is important and exciting, but also feels timely. Perhaps the celebrity of Laurie Simmons for a large exhibition is important to the city, and perhaps her daughter’s fame will help draw a younger crowd that the museum continues to struggle to engage, but it is possible that the curation of the show lets Chicago down by not giving the audience enough credit and having faith in the viewer.

Before Relevancy: Laurie Simmons at MCA

Occupying the top floor of the MCA, Laurie Simmons’ retrospective Big Camera, Little Camera is laid out in the typical, cyclical route which shows in that space follow. And while it may be a standard practice for the MCA, it is perhaps more fitting than it would ordinarily be. When you first approach the galleries, a short video plays of the artist talking about their practice, as way of introduction. This again, is typical for shows in this space, but two things stuck out: one, where Simmons states, ‘my subject has literally been the same from the first day in 1976 that I picked up a camera and shot a little sink in front of a piece of ivy wallpaper. I’m still shooting the same thing somehow.’ This statement points to the cyclical nature of her work–fittingly, as you exit the exhibit, you again approach the entrance, which echoes Simmons’ explanation of how she maintains her practice, and will return to certain methods. The second point that stood out was this: ‘The first pictures I made were about trying to reconstruct a memory and talk about the nature of artifice, talk about both the beauty, the light side and the dark side, of what I understood to be happening around me when I was a child.’

The main wall text viewers encounter as a prelude to the exhibition states, ‘Since the late 1970s,…Simmons has explored archetypal gender roles with her work. Turning a critical eye on tropes that dominated the postwar era of her upbringing, Simmons creates fictional scenes that mirror and unsettle the American dream of prosperity and feminine domesticity.’ While this is certainly an aspect of the work, through these explorations of gender and the American dream and the use of ‘props’ to ‘help define who we are,’ what Simmons is really exploring is the nature of constructed artifice. However, the curation of the wall text–both out front, and dotted throughout the duration of the galleries as anecdotal interjections–lean more towards issues of gender identity and fluidity, and the traditional constructed façades of femininity and masculinity. While it is unclear how much input Simmons had into these texts, it is clear that there is a certain push towards particular aspects of the work that more clearly address pressing, relevant issues of today, despite the fact that, as Simmons says, she has been making the same work since 1976. Museums do, after all, have a bottom line and struggle, as with all cultural institutions, to stay relevant. Gender, and particularly the achievements of women are highlighted: Sarah Charlesworth, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman are mentioned as ‘pioneers’ of the Pictures Generation alongside Simmons herself. When the constructed artifice Simmons is exploring is mentioned as such, it is alongside mentions of media, and reality– connections which have only been amplified in the digital age of the internet. In fact, in reading some of the texts, I couldn’t help but think of the MCA’s recent show, I Was Raised On The Internet, which was housed in the same space I was currently occupying.

And as with the I Was Raised…show, the themes and ideas feel less specifically relevant to a particular place, and more to the human population as a whole, although it does feel somewhat targeted towards younger generations, which I imagine the museum is trying to attract. But for Chicago, I think it always feels important to bring in bigger artists that can draw people in. And though Simmons may not conduct the same audience or name recognition of someone like Murakami, the visual draw of her images holds power in their accessibility.

“Laurie Simmons: Big Camera/Little Camera” at the MCA

As someone who was unfamiliar with Laurie Simmons’ work before visiting the museum, I found the exhibition to be quite accessible and left feeling like I had a firm grasp on her practice and her journey as an artist. The video at the entrance to the show was particularly helpful as it allowed the audience to hear from the artist directly. All too often, we dissociate the artist from the art, and it was nice that the curator had decided to include an element of the personal. After entering the exhibition, it was clear that the show had a linear footprint and was sectioned off by series. While it is refreshing to see shows that are not always chronological, I think it served this particular show well as I gained a deeper understanding of Simmons’ work and practice as I moved throughout the space. Her use of miniature dolls, ventriloquist dummies, and Japanese love dolls were employed to explore her fascination with gender roles and domestic spaces. While her type of doll and material execution morphed throughout her career, the topics she explored remained static. The chronological display forced a certain focus on form and media as it developed throughout her career. I do not think this hindered an assessment of her artwork but rather allowed for a thoughtful engagement with her multi-year portfolio. The audience is exposed to her full body of work and gains a more nuanced interpretation of her place in recent art history. Throughout her career, her work had a unique depth and breadth, yet all seemed to be part of the same conceptual pulse. The work itself is cohesive and unified and therefore it does not seem like a lot of curatorial heavy lifting was necessary. The didactics were effective but not overbearing. For example, wall text was succinct and informative yet allowed space for the viewer to engage with work on their own terms. The wall sized timeline was a kind gesture that filled the center atrium space yet seemed a bit unnecessary (was Simmons’ 2011 appearance on Gossip Girlreally a vital mention?). The vitrine with the tiny furniture assembled in rainbow order was a clever touch not because the viewer needed to see the props in order to understand the work but more so that it brought the aura of the living artist into the space. Personal details like this, as well as the “set boxes” and dollhouse (even though it is part of the MCA collection) humanized the otherwise “inhuman” show. Surprisingly, while “Big Camera/Little Camera” is a show of mostly photographs, the curators were able to achieve a visually interesting and aesthetically varied retrospective. Since the show was curated by the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, I am curious how much say the MCA actually had in the process. Did the MCA simply adjust the show to their physical space, or did they have any significant curatorial input? The show seemed like a perfect fit for the space! Overall, the exhibition is a great Chicago tribute to an artist who may be more well known in east coast art circles. Her work is deserving of the show and I think the MCA presented it clearly yet with enough space to allow audiences to draw their own conclusions on her work and its significance for spectators today. 

Self Transformation As Means of Fracturing Time

Enrico David is an artist that is currently based in London who is known for his works that range across various mediums; such as his use of drawing, textiles and sculpture. Through the course of his twenty-year practice, David has exhibited in multiple renew spaces, such as the New Museum, Tate Britain and the Venice Biennale. Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release is the first major retrospective of this artist’s work to be ever presented in the United States. David offers an access point to the intimate relationship between himself and his art objects. Striking a balance between the sculptural and the figurative, Enrico David partakes in a conversation of what it means to deconstruct the body and its identity.

Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release is located in the exhibition hall on the first floor of the MCA, featuring a large open space that is divided by four unconnected white walls where David’s works are grouped by materials and themes rather than chronologically. This was certainly a curatorial decision that wished to highlight David’s “intuitive process and the timeless nature of it”. What Enrico David’s practice presents is a diversified body of work that collaborate with each other to create a constantly shifting landscape that blurs any sense of orientation and specific trajectories.

The first time we are introduced to this shifting theme is through the introductory didactic label of the art show. The label elaborates on the resistances of Enrico David from being defined by any particular time or space by embracing the nontraditional materials that gives space and agency to the mutation and replication of human forms. The title, Gradation of Slow Release, takes its name from the 2015 sculpture that presents an anthropomorphic body that is being manipulated to become a stretched, standing sculpture. The work morphs itself between stages of humanity and objecthood, desperately trying to search for a sense of identity. The artworks in the show exist in an environment of distress, as they are constantly begging the viewer to guide them through a process of self-identification.

Furthermore, the objects exist in a timeless space that cannot offer them a sense of identity besides the thirst of the human condition that seeks meaning. While crossing the unstable space created by the show, we bump into extreme forms of corporeal bodies that shift between the grotesque and the sterile. The Objects become an iconography that leaves us experiencing the unknown, reminding us about the fragility of the physical and mental, while still reinforcing the importance and beauty of transformations. Allowing a timeless space for us to reflect about the limitations and expectations about our own identity.
Gradations of Slow Release showcases an alternative to the chronological retrospectives that we are used to and encourages the audience to question not only the existence of an art career as a linear journey, but also the existence of humanity as a series of events placed in a chronological order. Prioritizing the importance of personal explorations as a part of our identity and the acceptance of constant transformation as the defining quality of our humanity.  

Distressed figure walking into the contemporary

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago exhibited the show, “Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release”. The show was an introduction of Enrico David’s work to the Chicago audience along with Chicago imagists show at the Art Institute of Chicago called, “Hairy Who?”. Both shows opened on the same week and one probably could find a connection there. The depiction of figure in Enrico David’s work has similar nuance to the depiction of figure in Chicago Imagists. James Yood, renowned Chicago art critic / historian once said that the depiction of distressed figure with spice of humor is a characteristic of Chicago Imagists. It is not so hard for one to figure out that the depiction of distressed figure is predominant in Enrico David’s practice. While Art Institute of Chicago was renouncing Chicago’s art history, MCA Chicago attempted to extend the dialogue by showing a European artist, whose practice carries similar visual concerns with Chicago Imagists, but in a very different context.       

The selection of Enrico David’s twenty years of work was curated in a way that viewer could follow the process of his practice. At the entrance of the exhibition space, there was a waist height sculpture on the left and large-scale figure painting on the right. It was a thoughtful introduction for the curation of the show, starting from image based work and ending with works that carries more of three dimensional concerns. Two works at the gate allowed the viewers to have a sense of Enrico’s practice in terms of broad usage of material and forms.

The exhibition space was largely divided into four spaces. The first space one enters displayed paintings and sculptures. The sculptures were relatively smaller than paintings, and the forms of sculptures were positioned in a way that the viewer could tell the images in paintings were informed by the sculptures. The second space was focused on hanging sculptures, the whole back-wall was left empty. The decision of leaving out the big portion of wall space emphasized the proprioception in a way that the viewer had to reposition oneself to the work in a way that was different from the first space. Third space displayed paintings and sculptures that are not directly related to on another. The last space seemed like his most recent body of work. The fusion between sculpture and functional object was happening. It became more of an attempt to find a relationship between images and objects in a direct and indirect way. The works at the last space were an assemblage of different stages if his practice, which allowed the viewers to exit with questions. The curation generated a narrative between painting and sculpture, starting from definitive relationship to complex relationship to enforced fusion, which seemed cohesive enough keep viewers on track. 

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago proposed interesting questions to Chicago audience through the show, Enrico David: Gradations of Slow Release. What does it mean that the depiction of distressed figure is widely used in different contexts? How did Imagists position themselves within the distressed figure? What does usage of distressed figure mean in contemporary dialogue? How are we positioning ourselves in distressed figures at the current moment?  

The Aesthetics of White Feminism, from Baby Boomers to Millennials

The first question that comes to mind after seeing Laurie Simmons retrospective Big Camera/Little Camera at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is what does it mean to have a major exhibition in 2019 about baby boomer, white feminism?

Big Camera/Little Camera shows the progression of Simmons’s creative career from the 70s up until today. There are thematic threads that are present throughout the whole exhibition –femininity, domesticity, socially imposed gender roles and sexuality; and the exhibition reveals how the way in which Simmons has approached the themes through her art has changed drastically.

In her earlier photographs, such as the Early Black and White, Cowboys and Early Color Interiors, Simmons was critiquing how society imposes roles and gender from an early age through the toys that kids play with. This body of work, photographs of hand-made collaged settings inhabited by dolls, feels very honest. We see an adult playing with the toys of her childhood, rearranging them to create unusual scenes. The aesthetics of these photographs reveal who Simmons was at the time; a playful young American woman, concerned more with creating beautiful images than with making strong demands or critiques. The series Walking and Lying Objects shares similar qualities. Through a combination of Film Noir and surrealist aesthetics, these photographs are iconic and poetic in their own untranslatable nature. Walking and Lying Objects makes obvious comments on gender, roles and identity; however, the strength of the series is not in its politics, but in its visual appeal.

The exhibition shows how Simmons’s work evolved in a more or less predictable way, big dolls replace the little dolls, the settings become more complex and the dollhouses now have original miniature artwork inside them. As the productions’ execution increases and the critiques are more literal, the work looses its initial mystery and enchantment. A series like Two Boys, which shows idiotic, gawking teenagers in front of their laptops, has nothing poetic or mysterious; it’s nothing more but an illustration of a very shallow comment on life in the digital age. The series The Love Doll and Kigurumi, which show a bizarre touristy view on Japanese contemporary doll culture, are equally empty.

Towards the end of the show there’s a room with the portrait series How We See, which is especially interesting to compare the early DIY photographs. The hand-made and material qualities or the early photographs are completely lost in her latest work, replaced now by super produced, crisp digital images. The room is covered with big-scale, Cindy Sherman like, colorful portraits of mainly white women and a couple of women of color. Although the images are technically perfect and visually striking, it’s hard too see Laurie Simmons in these photographs. It’s not clear what’s the intention behind the advertising level production. Is Simmons using her models to state a contemporary critique? Is she trying to dignify them? Or is she hiding behind the faces of contemporary mainstream feminism?

It’s surprising that the How We See series can feel so impersonal even when Simmons used some of her family members as models. Lena and Grace Dunham photographs are in there, stealing the attention from the photographs themselves and reminding us of their own pop culture and social media narratives. Maybe that was Laurie Simmons’s intention with the series, to pass the lead to a new generation? Seeing Simmons’s children large portraits in the room has an imposing, royal-like quality: they now tell the story, they’re in charge. The sad part is that Grace and Lena’s feminism is highly questionable as well; it is also predominantly white, self-oriented and based on privilege. And yet, their pop feminism is indeed more interesting than their mother’s current lack of discourse.

Although Big Camera/Little Camera is an interesting show over all, presenting it as a major retrospective at the MCA is a definitely a big statement from the museum that we have to pay attention to. Having Laurie Simmons’s work in conversation with other female artists’ work would be less grandiose but way richer for a contemporary discussion on feminism. Why do we need more white grandiosity in our time?

The spectator as a lost pilgrim

There is not worst way of sabotaging a short art review than starting by quoting, or even worst, paraphrasing a French Philosopher. Nevertheless, I am going to take the risk, even if I lose a few readers. I’m referring to one of the thesis of Regis Débray, argued both in Life and Death of the image as well as God: an itinerary. In some parts of these two long essays he basically explains how, in the past three decades, at least for a Western Liberal and educated mass, religion and faith have been replaced by a cult to entertainment and culture: “When the ‘living stones’, believers or militants, dry out and crumble, the stones themselves regress from relics to mere residues. Museums have begun to fill up as churches have gradually emptied out. And a church, too, can turn into a museum.”

Although we could write pages and pages on this subject, what interests me is the analogy between religion and art as a lens to look at the recent exhibition of the Italian born artist Enrico David, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago. Titled after one of the main works on view, Gradiations of Slow release, this 20 years first survey of David in the U.S., proposes a very Catholic experience.

First of all, the way the artist expresses himself in the didactical video of the entrance is already setting the mood. “Signal the possibility… a sense of mystery… initiate your own journey… traumatic thing… visualizing energies… emerge… decipher something… proceeding blind faith… own spire and energy…”, he says in front of the camera. Unconsciously, there is a sense of spirituality that get stocked in the back of your head. Then, once you are about to enter the show, is unavoidable not to think of it as a threshold into a Catholic church. The Foyer or Narthex, in this case, is generated by the big wall in front. This one is holding, at the right side, a giant canvas with a pink and black figure made out of wool and acrylic. At the left, it works as a background for one of his uncanny body sculptures made out of a mix of poor and sophisticated materials that turn into a reddish flesh color (See Figure 1). This simple gesture of generating a barrier that makes you stop before seeing the totality of the space is a very similar experience to the one of a church.

Once inside, whether you decide to turn left or right, you realize that the space is arranged in four squares formed by four floating walls and marking a giant cross with a void in the center. The curatorial approach and its premise seem very simple: wander around, do your own connections, avoid chronology and show all the wide range of techniques and materials used by the artist to approach the body. Or should I say the body of Christ? I’m talking about figures trying to stand, to levitate, to come back from the deathly weight of gravity. Faces and legs, arms and torsos, hands and necks, deformed figures that usually start from a drawing and then get transformed, or copied, into a tapestry, a Yosemite sculpture, a cast, wire and stone, a painting, etc. The multiplicity is evident but not really justified, as for example in Figure 2, where the translation from some kind of brut object made out of austere and precarious materials becomes an unexpressive weaved caricature, probably easiest to sell, but that doesn’t reflect the precious sensibility of materials and play embedded in the preliminary sculpture/toy. In a general sense, although there are very beautiful and mysterious pieces (See Figure 3), I feel that we are being tricked to see a modern artist as if it was contemporary, instead of presenting it as it is. And maybe this is why I started with the religious analogy. Because even if the curator Michael Darling wasn’t thinking in a subliminal display to convert us to David’s faith, it is obvious that there is an excess of discourse about cycles, transformations and process.

In that sense, I’m missing the risk of bringing more difficult meanings and connections. As for example the relationships that this could have with the imagists and the tradition of Chicagoan artists depicting figures. Or maybe tracing the legacy of Italian craftsmanship as well as their material tradition in fine arts and architecture (he even has a Roman aqueduct structure instead of a pedestal. See Figure 4), just to name a couple of possibilities. Instead, the spectator, like a lost pilgrim in a church, is confronted with 50 diverse works arranged at the level of the eye or timidly pointing into the floor. Or, to put into the exhibition itself, a chaotic walk in between two pieces that for me frame the whole exhibition and this idea of the museum replaced by a Roman church: Life Sentences (See Figure 5) and Tools and Toys III (See Figure 6).